Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Climategate Chronicle

Late last year, climate researchers were accused of exaggerating study results. SPIEGEL ONLINE has since analyzed the hacked "Climategate" e-mails and provided insights into one of the most unprecedented spats in recent scientific history.

The article is interesting not only for its portrayal of climate science as highly politicized relative to other areas of scientific research, but also for the reliance on social science rather than natural science to explicate the situation. Analyzing 15 years of debate between climate scientists and climate skeptics, the article outlines the dynamics of a process of polarization and draws liberally on the insights of sociologist of science Peter Weingart. In particular, Weingart notes that both sides have opted to misrepresent the situation by removing ambiguity and emphazising certainty.

Weingart says the political ramifications only fuelled the battle between the two sides in the global warming debate. He believes that the more an issue is politicized, the deeper the rifts between opposing stances. .... And even scientists are not always interested solely in the actual truth of the matter. Weingart notes that public debate is mostly "only superficially about enlightenment." Rather, it is more about "deciding on and resolving conflicts through general social agreement." That's why it helps to present unambiguous findings.

The Time for Clear Answers Is Over

However, it seems all but impossible to provide conclusive proof in climate research. Scientific philosopher Silvio Funtovicz foresaw this dilemma as early as 1990. He described climate research as a "postnormal science." On account of its high complexity, he said it was subject to great uncertainty while, at the same time, harboring huge risks.

The experts therefore face a dilemma: They have little chance of giving the right advice. If they don't sound the alarm, they are accused of not fulfilling their moral obligations. However, alarmist predictions are criticized if the predicted changes fail to materialize quickly.

Climatological findings will probably remain ambiguous even if further progress is made. Weingart says it's now up to scientists and society to learn to come to terms with this. In particular, he warns, politicians must understand that there is no such thing as clear results. "Politicians should stop listening to scientists who promise simple answers," Weingart says.

An interesting collection of photos accompanies the essay.

Ministers of the Maldives government met on the sea bed to draw attention to the global warming and its effect on sea levels.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with this assessment, and furthermore: climate change is "the new normal." The climate IS changing rapidly. We can see its effects weekly on the television with every torrential rainstorm that destroys cities, with every drought and movement north of thousands of species, with new lows of summer and winter ice in the Atlantic, etc. etc. We're watching this happen day by day but that's part of the problem. We're adjusting to it as the new normal. Even catastrophic events won't change our behaviour much--we'll simply adapt our current systems to the new circumstances.